If you’re looking for a film that will make you cringe, make you sick and make you think all at the same time, look no further than High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s cinematic adaption of the classic J.G. Ballard sci-fi novel of the same name.
Warning: Some vague and relatively minor spoilers ahead, many of which are already revealed in the trailer. Ye have been warned!
Before I dive into my review, I should point out that High-Rise is most certainly not for everyone. Even if you have an iron stomach, you’re probably going to struggle with some of the more repulsive moments in this film. To be clear, High-Rise isn’t shockingly gory, but it’s still shocking nonetheless. Much of the awfulness that happens in the film takes place off-camera, so you don’t see it all going down in front of you. But Wheatley makes sure you know what’s going on, and even thinking about some of the worst stuff that’s taking place outside your field of view will upset and disturb you. And that’s especially true for all you dog lovers out there (myself included). If you see a dog, brace yourself. Trust me on that one.
That being said, High-Rise is definitely worth watching if you can manage to sit through it. The entire film takes place inside of a futuristic — for its time, at least, as the film is set in 1970s Britain — high-rise apartment building constructed in the brutalist tradition. The building’s chilling concrete exterior and sterile, drab interior set the tone for the film, letting viewers know straight away what kind of story they’re in for.
The building’s tenants are a mix of middle, upper and very upper class individuals, and they quickly establish a quasi-formal caste system; the wealthiest, most successful occupants all live on the upper floors, while those on the lower floors are of a more humble stature. Of course, this caste system is a purely artificial creation, a built-in feature cut from the same cultural cloth as the building itself. The building’s occupants are only too happy to go along with it, though, choosing division over unity, conflict over coexistence, factionalism over cooperation. And the results couldn’t be more nightmarish.
What makes High-Rise such an intriguing experience is seeing how the occupants all respond to the increasingly violent conflict playing out before them. Dr. Robert Laing, played by A-lister Tom Hiddleston, valiantly resists the tribalistic behaviors of his fellow tenants, leading you to believe that he will be the one to rise above the mayhem and restore order to this anarchic world. Richard Wilder, played by Luke Evans, is the yin to Laing’s yang. A boorish and impulsive man who fancies himself a genuine revolutionary, Wilder never passes on the opportunity to further fan the flames while simultaneously (and somewhat ironically) seeking to expose the source of all this madness.
The building’s architect, played by the exceedingly underrated Jeremy Irons, is probably the most difficult character to figure out. At times, he comes off as a sort of naive egalitarian. Other times, he seems more like a disinterested authoritarian concerned more with the fate of his creation than with the lives of the people that inhabit it. In other words, he’s a tough nut to crack. The same can be said for Charlotte Melvillle (Sienna Miller), a free-spirited socialite whose role in the story is significant but not immediately obvious.
Now you might be wondering why these characters don’t just leave the freakin’ building! That’s a fair question to ponder. It’s also a question with more than one right answer. And the answer you give probably says as much about you as it does about the characters in this film. But you have to see the film first to understand why that’s the case.
There are also some obvious political overtones in High-Rise, but how you interpret them depends heavily on your worldview. Considering the devilish behaviors of the building’s self-appointed aristocrats, you could easily argue that, at its core, High-Rise is a two-hour-long anti-capitalist, anti-right-wing screed. You could also argue, though, that the film is a two-hour-long rejection of extreme left-wing collectivism, as nearly all of the characters willingly forfeit their individuality almost immediately after chaos strikes the building, the results of which are absolutely disastrous.
That being said, I didn’t find High-Rise to be as political as some folks probably will. You see, in this film, everyone is a villain in their own right. There’s hardly anyone worth rooting for, anyone for you to empathize with or feel sorry for (except for the dogs, obviously). As far as I can tell, the takeaway here is that, regardless of a person’s political persuasion, social standing or economic status, the simplest way to expose the true character of any individual is to determine how they’ll respond when forced to choose between indulging in their most primal, selfish instincts and fighting to preserve both their own agency and the agency of their fellow human beings. In that respect, virtually every character in this film, from the upper floor snobs to the lower floor hooligans, is a complete and utter failure.
If High-Rise has any shortcomings, they can be found in the occasionally choppy editing and unnecessarily over-the-top carnage, both of which can and occasionally do detract from the quality of the story. However, the acting is so incredibly good that it often overshadows the film’s most notable flaws and makes it much easier to look past them. Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons are their normally awesome selves, but Luke Evans and Sienna Miller are the real stars of High-Rise. Their performances are particularly impressive, much more so than I had been expecting them to be.
In conclusion, High-Rise is a multilayered and thematically-complex film that challenges the audience in ways few films do. Ben Wheatley’s fearless approach to the story makes it both difficult to absorb and easy to appreciate, and that’s no small feat. Though it does have its flaws and isn’t quite as good as it could be, I’d still recommend giving High-Rise a chance. If you find yourself disgusted by what you see and ultimately end up hating this film (and some of you will), you can at least walk away with the satisfaction of knowing that, unlike the characters in High-Rise, your sanity is firmly intact.
High-Rise is currently available on iTunes, Amazon Video and On Demand and will be released in select theaters on May 13. To find a theater near you that will be showing High-Rise, head on over to the film’s official website and click “get tickets” in the top menu bar.
Final Grade for High-Rise: B+